An Entrepreneurial Son Of God
I feel an intense responsibility to steward the blessings that God has instilled inside of me – to fully Glorify the Lord we were all created to worship, through business. This is something that arose from The Holy Spirit inside of me back in 2009, to stand at the forefront of my daily life, as I came to fully understand The Gospel and put my life in the hands of Jesus Christ as my Lord & Savior.
I want nothing more than to be able to show people the love of Christ so that, if they don’t yet know Him, they can turn from their sin to do so. Just as I was so amazingly blessed to do.
My personal mission is to relate business to The Gospel, not only by helping people through the products and services of whatever business I am associated with, but ultimately through a business platform utilized in conversation with those in the business world, who are skeptical of whether or not Jesus Christ is truly our ONLY savior.
I believe God has put us here to show others more than just the reality of Jesus, but The Gospel itself – the fact that with His blood on the cross, Jesus has paid the debts for our past, present and future sin. Lots of people say that Jesus is “real,” or that they “believe,” but if we truly know this blood was shed as our only chance, what are we doing about it? There is nothing more important for us to cling to for our own salvation AND for us to discuss with others, than this truth.
In addition to daily meditation in The Word, there are several key figures in my life, that I study to assist me in not only my personal growth in Christ, but also the ability to share The Gospel. Matt Chandler (Dallas), Francis Chan (San Francisco), John Piper (Minneapolis), Tim Keller (New York), and my Pastor here in Birmingham at The Church of Brook Hills, Best-Selling author David Platt.
Perhaps the best starting point resource for any skeptic, agnostic, atheist and any other form of non-believer or even for a curious “cultural Christian,” is Tim Keller’s book and DVD series Reason For God, which is set in Manhattan in 2010, with six non-believers and Keller addressing six solid issues that most non-believers have with The Gospel.
Regardless, my story has become centered around The Gospel and I would love to talk to you any time about The What, The Why and The How, as it is more important than anything else you or I could ever breath.
I grew up in Syracuse, New York, as an only child with two amazing parents who loved me more than I ever deserved. Banging my hands on my family’s piano at the age of three years old, it was apparent to my mother that I was a musical child. I began to pursue both music and sports from the age of three until the age of 14, when I decided to target basketball and baseball as my two sports of choice, while “taking my foot off of the gas pedal” with my classical piano training.
That journey in classical piano training and sports, as a young boy, was priceless. And my continued experiences in sports throughout high school and college would teach me things that I still apply today as a husband, parent, business partner, team leader, etc. I am very thankful for music and sports, and the perspective it has given me today.
My family extends beyond just my parents, however, as I was also blessed with close-knit relationships with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, with whom I still am very close with today, even being 1,000+ miles away.
Having a family that extended so far and yet stayed so close, was something I fed off of as a little boy, and still do today.
What also occurred at the age of three years old, was conflict between my parents. One that almost lead to divorce. On top of this, my mother lost her kidneys due to a kidney disease that would have taken her life if it wasn’t for a timely transplant. During this time of near-divorce and near-death for my mother, I watched our family take a turn toward Christ that made a crucial difference in my upbringing.
Ironically, it was my “broken-English speaking,” Italian grandmother Josephine, who became a maternal light in our family. One that helped reunite my parents in a church that she basically co-founded, called Believer’s Chapel, which was based on The Bible and not a man-made religious doctrine; something new for my traditionally Catholic, Italian family to grasp.
There is NO DOUBT in my mind that God’s plan to save my mother through that kidney transplant, and His plan to save my parents marriage through His son’s model of sacrifice that they committed follow in their forgiveness for one another, changed my upbringing in a way that I’ll probably never truly fathom, but always be extremely thankful for.
At the age of 12 (June 1994), while playing shortstop in a Little League Baseball game, a pop fly was hit into shallow left-centerfield, where I drifted to make the catch over my head. However, the centerfielder was running in full speed and we collided head-on-head.
While Mark (that’s the centerfielder) was okay, I was not. My forehead had collapsed into mere pieces and, as I lay in centerfield unconscious, my closest family and friends were all circled around me praying that I would live. Blood seeped out of my eyes, nose, ears and mouth, and my skin had sunk into what was my forehead.
The doctors told my father all kinds of brain-dead and even fatal scenarios that could play out during a surgery attempt, as the brain is of course the most crucial member of our body, but he pursued surgery with faith that God’s plan would be perfect, whatever that might be.
I don’t remember much, but one thing I clearly remember is the ride from the ball field to the hospital on the ambulance, when I told my mother to “fear not, for this would be a part of God’s plan for me to share my story with others.” They [the doctors] said that I’d have seizures and other side effects, but He [God] had a different plan.
A story that saw me back in my bedroom only one week later. A story where I never had a seizure, but instead was walking the stage at my sixth grade graduation. A story that had me back on the ball field only two months later! A story that was the reality of His plan for me.
Attending my first classes at [my new Jr./Sr. High School] Christian Brother’s Academy (CBA), just months after this near-death experience, I had a story to tell, one that I would continue to tell for the rest of my life – God had saved me.
Because my neurosurgeon was so supportive of my “return to childhood,” he released me to allow my athletic career to resume at CBA, where I was amongst the best students and athletes in central New York. As an All-State Baseball player, I chose to take my athletic career to Ithaca College, after graduating from high school in 2000.
However, I never really felt complete athletically or academically at Ithaca. It seemed that things just couldn’t go my way in either realm, while attending college there. I was not experiencing the success that I had originally set out to achieve; and it bothered and motivated me greatly, to make a change.
I decided to make a change, alright, as I sat in the convenience store that my high school baseball coach and philosopher Tom Dotterer owns. Tom’s story is amazing and he is still a powerful figure in my life (read and watch some of his story here).
Becoming a Man
It was a late evening in the summer of 2002, and I really wanted to leave Ithaca College and have a fresh start somewhere else. Coach Dotterer made a call to two different people in Alabama, of all places. One of those people was Jeff Segar, a former CBA great, who had left Syracuse to attend the University of Montevallo (UM), an NCAA Division II school, just south of Birmingham.
Jeff was drafted by the New York Yankees in 2000, and I looked up to him while he was at CBA. The other was Bob Riesener, UM’s head baseball coach at that time, who Coach Dotterer had gotten to know during Jeff’s All-American years playing at UM. Literally one month after that phone call, I had visited Alabama and accepted a scholarship offer to play at UM.
I’ll admit it, there was definitely an initial feeling of “where the heck am I!?” Especially when you consider that I was in Alabama, around an entirely different culture of people, and I had no car or cell phone. It was baseball and books. Nothing else.
Having Jeff around at times, was a big piece of encouragement, as he would spend his off-season days away from the Yankees, training at UM. It was pretty neat doing the New York Yankees off-season training program with Jeff!
There were multiple transformations that occurred at UM; as a man, an athlete and a student.
Perhaps the biggest of these transformations was lead by the first two men I would meet, Matt White and Brian Phillips. These two took me under their wing for years to come, discipling me in Christ and pleading with me to truly follow Him. It’s been over a decade since I first met these two brothers, but their friendship to me still continues to grow.
The transformation I experienced as an athlete was a tough one, as I dealt with shoulder injuries which limited my performance, but pushed me toward my newfound passion for entrepreneurship.
I founded a television and radio network at UM, that required me to raise funds for equipment and staff, hire the right team, and create a plan for our team to execute on, in both the TV and Radio mediums. On air, we broadcasted more than 100 athletic contests and did over 50 weekly television highlight shows. I was the on camera talent and producer for all of them.
My passion for the stories that I was covering, lead me to pursue the creation of a film where I could tell them. In 2004, I shot and edited The Montevallo March To Glory, a 70-minute documentary film that I entered into several film festivals, including The Ivy League Film Fest at Brown University.
As I covered the stories of my subjects, I was creating my own story. A story that included experiences like shooting parts of the film on location in the Bed Stuy projects in Brooklyn, or building an editing suite in my basement where I was working “all-nighters” throughout the summer of 2004.
The lessons I learned from 2002-2005 were priceless, and would set the stage for what I would do next.
Becoming An Entrepreneur
After graduating with a B.S. in Broadcast Journalism from UM in 2005, I decided to stay in Alabama, moving up to Birmingham to start J.Anthony Productions, LLC, which provides online video production solutions for a long list of small college athletic programs via The Gulf South Conference (GSC), the NCAA’s premier Division II league.
Simultaneously, I began broadcasting live sporting events for regional television networks like Comcast SportsNet and Cox Sports Television, as well as doing work nationally for ESPNU.
From there, in 2008, I raised angel investor money to fund Eporro.com, a then-BETA website that allowed high school student-athletes to build “Recruit Profiles” with their highlight videos and academic transcripts. More than 30 high schools across Alabama paid to be a part of the 2008-09 BETA test, and countless student-athletes built Recruit Profiles to successfully gain the collegiate exposure they needed to get a college scholarship.
My good friend and fellow New Yorker, Joe Maggio, joined me on this trek to help these young athletes achieve their dreams, as he moved to Birmingham to partner with me on this startup. Joe is one of multiple close friends who have moved to Birmingham and built a life for themselves down here together with me. I am so blessed to have been given such amazing lifelong friends, who I have grown up with and known for decades now.
The biggest reason for Eporro’s initial success, simply arose from my passion to help other young men and women pursue the same objective that I pursued six years earlier, when I was mailing out packages containing VHS highlight tapes and transcripts to colleges around the nation, hoping that I’d get my “big break” in the form of a college baseball scholarship.
It happened for me in 2002 and it was happening for my clients in 2008-09, when I launched my new business. I just knew that these young student-athlete could reach their collegiate athletics goals a lot easier than it was for me, using the technology we had now made available!
Starting My Own Family
It is during this time, that I married my wife Yazmin, on June 27, 2009, in which I truly won the ultimate prize in what was a “package deal” where I instantly became a father to my step-daughter Savanah (7 years old at the time)!
Although I grew up in Christian house with a highly supportive family, I didn’t truly understand The Gospel in a way where I fully knew Christ, and dealt with a feeling of condemnation for years. A feeling where I continued to live an up & down, ‘trial and error-type life,’ filled with faith aspirations instead of realizing that “there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, because the Law of the Spirit of Life has set him free from the Law of Sin and the Law of Death (Romans 8:1-2).”
During the process of getting married, Yazmin and I had our pre-marital counseling done by Brian [Phillips], who helped me see this truth through the Holy Spirit, in a way where I would never look back. Brian and I began meeting together again each week, starting a discipleship group for men to experience The Gospel and learn how to share it with others; I am honored to still be a part of this group three years later, along with several others including Matt [White].
The success of my young business (Eporro), during our BETA testing phase, lead to further funding and the creation of NextSpex.com in 2010, along with statewide partnerships via the Alabama and Lousiana High School Athletic Associations, to provide the service at no cost for high school student-athletes in each of these states.
I AM One of the First Iron Tribe Transformations
In early 2010, I met a gentleman named Forrest Walden, who had a brand new business called Iron Tribe Fitness. As a client, I “manipulated” trade out services with Forrest (his words not mine:), developing video production for Iron Tribe’s web site, using my company J.Anthony Productions’ services, while working out and competing each day in classes at Iron Tribe.
Working out for almost my entire life, because of sports and because of my mother’s intense passion for fitness, I never realized it could be as much fun as it was for me at Iron Tribe. Working out in a group each day, doing these “functional movements” in a setting where the clock determines my score, gave me results that I never thought were possible.
In 2010, and as Iron Tribe grew rapidly, my intrigue lead to further involvement, as we interacted frequently at our favorite coffee shop in Homewood (O’Henry’s Coffees), about business and life in general. Honestly, I was fascinated by Forrest, who was six years older and had been very successful in business, let alone as a father [of three at the time], husband and ultimately, as a fellow brother in Christ.
I felt like, for the first time, I was around a guy who could lead me just as much as I could lead him. That was a first for me. It’s like God put me around my ultimate match and the power of that synergy was strong!
How strong was our synergistic passion?
My ongoing intrigue inspired me to begin shadowing the Iron Tribe operation in August 2010, learning the entire business, from on-the-floor coaching to gym-by-gym management (there was only one gym and it had about 150 clients when I started).
My research motivated me to exit the amazing startup that was NextSpex.com, to pursue the opportunity to open up the 2nd-EVER Iron Tribe gym on Birmingham’s Highway 280, on January 24, 2011! Just one year after Forrest had opened the first Iron Tribe gym.
What is also known as the Iron Tribe Fitness “business franchise prototype,” Iron Tribe Fitness (ITF) 280 is located more than eight miles from Homewood’s original ITF gym location, on a high-traffic highway that has nothing of a viral community like Homewood.
Upon reaching the 100 client mark, I trained my staff to manage the location and became a business partner with Forrest, in what we humbly dubbed “ITF Global.” At that time, it was about 400 square feet and located just down the road from that favorite coffee shop of ours, where the conversations first began. It was in this small office space, that we would set the stage for the expansion of our business model, by building the systems needed to grow Iron Tribe from 2 gyms to dozens and beyond, through franchising the model for partners to buy in and start their own Tribes in new markets!
To literally change the world. The opportunity to go from transforming the lives of hundreds, to transforming thousands, to impacting millions of lives! Not just with fitness but through our core value of Giving Back, based on Psalm 67:1-2, which ultimately asks God to “bless us, so that we can bless others.”
From 2010 to present, we raised more than $500,000 to provide clean water for villages in countries like India and the Central African Republic, through a locally based organization called Neverthirst and the WOD For Water initiative we’ve founded, that funds well building directly out of Iron Tribe. We’ve also been able to achieve our “Giving Back calling,” through Team RWB and the WOD For Warriors initiative we started for them.
We have nine core values at Iron Tribe, but “We Connect God’s Blessings With His Purpose,” perhaps is the most subtly evident, through events such as these. Just imagine how many lives we can touch with 100 gyms, if we’ve been able to help this many people through a one day event with just four gyms [at that time]! Millions of dollars will be raised to save the lives of millions of people.
As President of the Iron Tribe brand, I work day-in, day-out on the objective of scaling the Iron Tribe Fitness client experience throughout all of our gym locations and markets, by leading my team of department vice presidents out of our corporate offices in Birmingham.
Our brand exists for the purpose “To create fitness communities that change lives.” Our mission is “To transform the lives of 15,000 athletes, through 100 thriving fitness communities by the end of 2017!”
This objective is consistently achieved and improved, through the development of online technologies and offline processes, that streamline the entire operation of an Iron Tribe Fitness location. These technologies are blend of custom platforms built by my development team, and the customization of existing business system technologies we’ve leveraged, such as Google Apps and Infusionsoft.
The software application that an ITF location manager uses is known as The Bay Door, and has won several international market awards for its capabilities, including the Infusionsoft CRM Award for Ultimate Marketer of the Year, multiple Inc. 5000 Awards as one of America’s Fastest Growing Companies and CRM Magazine’s Elite Company Award. The user interfaces for our clients to experience Iron Tribe beyond the classes they attend within our four walls, lives on our iPhone, iPad and web based applications. On and off the floor, Iron Tribe is delivering a priceless experience that has become the “third place,” after home and work, where people yearn to spend their time.
It’s an amazing blessing from the Lord God above, to have the opportunity to work with Forrest and our incredible Leadership team, that is dedicated to excellence and innovation each day we work together.
Losing My Mother
From 1985 to 2006, my mother persevered through multiple kidney transplants and even a seven year bout on dialysis (1999-2006), only to find out in 2009 that she had ovarian cancer. This was not an easy piece of news for me to hear about, but our faith in God’s plan played a huge role in her initial defeat over this cancer, as she was able to get off of her chemotherapy treatments in the spring of 2010; right around the time I was contemplating a transition into Iron Tribe Fitness.
She was such an encouragement to me during that time, as Iron Tribe was a young fitness business that had only been opened for a few months, and many could not see what I saw in Forrest, let alone the potential for us to do the big things we set out to do in the world of business and fitness. She did, though. She encouraged me to chase my dream and told me that she had always prayed for me to be yoked with a man like Forrest. So I did.
Just as we were beginning to make worldwide waves in the business world and beyond, my mother’s cancer returned stronger than ever in May 2012. To provide perspective – that video above of Forrest and I in New York with our wives, took place when my mother had returned to the hospital for the very last time.
By the time I made it up to Syracuse, from that Iron Tribe PR trip in Manhattan, the doctors had deemed my mother too sick for healing, and prescribed her to return home to pass away under Hospice care. This experience had some serious “legs to it.” Meaning that it was INTENSE.
My wife and I spent a great deal of time in New York, tending to my mother and being there for my father in such a tough stretch of days, until it was time for her to leave us on June 6, 2012.
I have always felt like God’s plan is so perfect, but it took an event like this for me to ask myself if I truly believe that; I DO. We are here for several decades, maybe even 100 years, for what? To store up treasure in a place that lasts forever. My mother’s initial victories of 27 years, over kidney disease and the initial surge of ovarian cancer, helped mold me into the man I am today. Without her as my mother, I wouldn’t be the same person I am.
The best part is, as different as my experience as her son has made me, I deserve severity but God has granted me salvation through His grace and mercy.
Matthew 6:20 says “but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” My Pastor David Platt has some great analogies of this in his NY Times Bestseller, Radical, but ultimately, our treasure comes from helping others see what Christ has to offer us when we turn from our sin – Eternal Life with Him!
As I move on without my mother, I am blessed to have my father with me, continuing the daily conversations her and I had for years and years. Yazmin has also been a rock during this time, and was a blessing in my mothers last weeks on this earth, when she tended to her more than anyone else could.
To Sum It All Up
My wife Yazmin has always been right along my side, supporting me as a father and as an entrepreneur. We so many things together as a family; especially working out with each other at Iron Tribe and growing together in the Lord.
Our ten-year-old daughter Savanah, is an Iron Tribe athlete as well, participating in the Tribe Kids program, which is neat because we are all living the Iron Tribe lifestyle and experiencing it’s amazing fruit together every day. Before you know it, our new baby girl Sofia, who was welcomed into the world on September 19th, 2011, will be in there working out with us too!
When I recently won the BizJournals.com Top 40 Under 40 award, the first thing I thought about is the amazing people God has placed in my life. I am humbled by the woman He has given me as a partner in Yazmin, let alone my girls and family. On top of all this, He has given me a team to work with, that is dedicated to changing the world together!
Appearing on several circuits in the entrepreneurship, marketing and franchising world as a keynote speaker, I relish the opportunity to share my thankfulness for these blessings and the passion I have to impact the Kingdom of God through business. While some organizations and audiences provide more allowance for the sharing of this message than others, the beauty is in the fact that our Iron Tribe brand allows me to be bold without wearing a t-shirt that has a bible verse on it or painting our core value up on the walls. Our business actually provides a natural outlet for the love of Christ on its own – how blessed am I!?